Understanding the Gaza Health Ministry and its Methodology for Calculating War Casualties

by Andrew Wright
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Gaza Ministry of Health

How many fatalities have occurred in the Gaza Strip since the onset of hostilities between Israel and Hamas?

Establishing an exact count of casualties in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip is a complex task, hindered by infrastructural collapse and ongoing conflict. Communication networks are unreliable, electricity is sporadic, and significant damage to roads and neighborhoods hampers rescue operations.

Medical professionals, working in overcrowded morgues and hospitals, struggle to maintain accurate records of the dead, many of whom are buried in mass graves or remain under rubble, thereby increasing the probability of errors in the count.

Despite these obstacles, the Ministry of Health in Gaza, operated under the governance of Hamas, continues to compile statistics on casualties. On a recent Thursday, the ministry issued its inaugural comprehensive report, listing the names, identification numbers, ages, and genders of 7,028 deceased Palestinians, including 2,913 minors.

The Gaza Health Ministry is the sole official channel for casualty data in the territory, as Israel has sealed its borders, restricting the entry of foreign journalists and aid workers. The Associated Press, alongside a handful of other international news agencies, maintains a presence in Gaza but lacks the means to conduct a comprehensive count of casualties.

Both United Nations and other global entities, as well as West Bank Palestinian authorities—who are rivals of Hamas—acknowledge that the Gaza Health Ministry has generally made earnest attempts to account for the dead, even under trying conditions. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program stated, “The figures may not be minutely accurate but do largely reflect the scale of death and injury.”

In prior conflicts, the counts provided by the ministry have largely corroborated those of U.N. inquiries, independent investigations, and even Israel’s own assessments. However, divergent reports regarding the death toll from an explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City have sparked questions about the ministry’s reliability.

Methodology for Casualty Assessment

The primary source for casualty information in Gaza is the Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra. Operating from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, al-Qidra receives continuous updates from hospitals throughout the Strip. These medical facilities maintain records of every injured individual and deceased body, which are then entered into a centralized computer system. While subject to occasional interruptions due to unreliable connectivity, the team makes additional efforts to confirm the accuracy of the numbers.

Additional data is also gathered from organizations like the Palestinian Red Crescent. The ministry issues regular updates, disaggregated by gender and age, though typically without specifying the names, ages, or locations of the deceased.

Staffing and Oversight

Although under the jurisdiction of the Hamas-led government, the Ministry of Health in Gaza operates separately from the political and security agencies controlled by Hamas. It comprises a blend of recently recruited Hamas employees and older civil servants affiliated with the Fatah party. Despite being based in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority still exercises some influence over health and education services in Gaza and is involved in patient transfers to Israeli hospitals.

Historical Consistency

Throughout past conflicts between Israel and Hamas, the Health Ministry’s casualty figures have largely aligned with those of U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Palestinian Red Crescent, albeit with minor discrepancies.

Controversies and Criticisms

While the Health Ministry faces criticism for lack of transparency, particularly in differentiating between civilian and combatant casualties, the Israeli military also declines to provide alternative figures. The ministry has also been scrutinized for the discrepancies in its reporting of the death toll from the recent al-Ahli Hospital explosion, which has led to questions about its credibility.

The Ministry of Health in Gaza, therefore, remains a pivotal yet contentious source for casualty statistics, its work impacted by the fraught conditions under which it operates.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Gaza Ministry of Health

What is the role of the Gaza Ministry of Health in calculating the war’s death toll?

The Gaza Ministry of Health, an agency in the Hamas-controlled government, is the primary official source responsible for tallying casualty numbers during the ongoing conflict with Israel. They collect data from all hospitals in the Gaza Strip and often release detailed reports, including names, ID numbers, ages, and genders of those who have been killed.

How does the ministry gather its data?

The Health Ministry spokesperson, Ashraf al-Qidra, receives a constant flow of data from every hospital in the Gaza Strip. Hospital administrators maintain records of every wounded individual and every deceased body, entering this information into a computerized system shared with al-Qidra and his colleagues.

What challenges does the Ministry of Health face in its data collection?

Data collection is severely hampered by issues such as spotty cell service, internet and power outages, and infrastructure damage due to airstrikes. These challenges increase the likelihood of errors in the death toll numbers.

How credible are the death toll figures provided by the Gaza Ministry of Health?

While there have been some questions about the ministry’s credibility, especially concerning specific incidents, international organizations such as the United Nations and experts have generally found that the ministry makes a good-faith effort to provide accurate figures under difficult conditions. Previous wars have shown the ministry’s counts to be largely consistent with U.N. and even Israeli figures.

Do international organizations trust the Gaza Ministry of Health’s figures?

The United Nations and other international bodies, including the World Health Organization, generally consider the ministry’s efforts to be in good faith and reflective of the grim reality on the ground. Their numbers have held up to scrutiny in the past.

What is the ministry’s track record from past conflicts?

In previous wars, the ministry’s death toll figures have largely been consistent with counts from the United Nations, independent investigations, and even Israel’s own tallies. For example, in the 2014 war, the ministry reported 2,310 Palestinians killed, while the U.N. reported 2,251.

How does the ministry handle cases where the circumstances of death are disputed?

The ministry describes all casualties as victims of “Israeli aggression” and does not usually distinguish between civilians and combatants or provide details on how individuals were killed. This lack of transparency has been a point of criticism.

What has been the international response to discrepancies in the ministry’s death toll figures?

When discrepancies arise, such as the al-Ahli Hospital incident, they can call the ministry’s credibility into question. Western intelligence agencies and even U.S. President Joe Biden have expressed doubts over specific figures provided by the ministry.

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